Why Apologizing Can Be So Good (for You)
It was 11:05 a.m., and my new client, Margaret, was five minutes late for her first therapy appointment. Just as I was about to call to check in with her, I could hear her footsteps coming up the stairs. Her facial expression showed disorientation. In an irritated tone, she explained that she had gone up and down the street looking in vain for my office, because there was no sign with my name on it.
Margaret was correct; there was no sign, just the house number. I usually make sure to explain to each new client how to find the entrance, because I know it’s tricky to find—but I had totally forgotten to do it this time. Now I was nervous about what impression I might have made on her, and about contributing to an awkward start to her therapy experience.
Margaret continued, “I’m never late.” Obviously, she was worried about not having made it to our appointment on time. Since an apology starts with remorse, I immediately said, “I am so sorry.” What might seem to be a small error to some people can still have an impact on someone else. It was Margaret’s first time in therapy, and my intention was to ensure that she felt heard, seen, understood, and safe.
I could have thought, Not a big deal. She’s only five minutes late, but I could tell that she was slightly upset. I believe that the following two maxims can provide valuable guidance to us when we contribute to hurt feelings or an inconvenience, even if we don’t understand necessarily why (although I did, in this case):
An apology can repair what silence can’t.
There really isn’t anything too small or too big to apologize for.
Intuitively, reflexively, and from a desire to be helpful, I said, “It must be frustrating to search up and down the street and then be late for your appointment. It can be so disorienting to be unable to find a place, can’t it?—especially when you see a therapist for the first time, and you know you’re going to feel vulnerable.” Margaret confirmed, “Yes, you’re right.”
I took responsibility by admitting that I had forgotten to give her more specific directions to my office. Without blaming her for anything, I tried to make amends by informing her that we would make up for the lost time. Without coming up with any excuses or minimizing her experience, I asked Margaret if she would need anything else from me on that issue, and she replied, “No, you got it.” Luckily, the rest of the session went well and we were able to connect.
Apologizing is difficult for many of us, because the thought that we might have caused discomfort, or even hurt or damaged someone, can feel overwhelming. No one wants to be seen as a bad person, and we usually want to protect our image.
But feeling the pain of guilt and shame can be for the greater good.
We typically want to avoid guilt, but without it, we might make the same mistake again and miss the opportunity to come up with a resolution. Although additional ideas about potential solutions wouldn’t have benefited Margaret, I brainstormed on my own in order to prevent such incidents from happening again. One solution was to revise my website to include more explicit directions to my office. I tried to learn from the experience, and because Margaret had voiced her concern, hopefully the next new client would have an easier time finding my office.
At our next session, Margaret sat down in my office and started by saying, “I want to talk to you about last week.” I must admit that my heart rate went up a little, because I thought she might still need to work on trusting me. Those feelings would have been absolutely okay, because Margaret’s sense of trust and safety was important to having a successful therapeutic relationship. Sometimes we need to apologize more than once, and I was ready for that.
However, what she was about to tell me was not what I expected. “You know,” she expressed. “I don’t think anyone has ever apologized to me—not my friends or my parents, who abused me. I don’t think I’ve heard any politicians apologize very well, either.” She explained how healing it had felt for her to have someone take responsibility and understand how it might be to walk in her shoes. She continued to tell me that she had noticed that people generally don’t know how to apologize and that it was nice to experience a person who could. Although I initially had failed to ensure that she could find my office with ease, by apologizing I repaired and deepened our connection, creating trust and safety—and perhaps a bit of healing.
Apologies can repair connections and prevent further injury.
As a trauma therapist, I’ve seen many clients who have suffered from the effects of abuse and neglect. As I state in my upcoming book on trauma, out of hundreds of clients, I have seen only three parents apologize for the emotional and physical wounds they inflicted. I’m not sure how many politicians, leaders, or other health professionals have served as good role models for expressing appropriate apologies either. Dr. Mike Denney (2005), a former trauma surgeon, points out that in some states, the medical field has an ethical code to stay away from apologies in order to protect physicians from lawsuits. But ironically, malpractice lawsuits have gone down in states where physicians have apologized to their patients, and in these cases, patients have even “responded with forgiveness.”
Making a proper apology can be healing for all parties involved and might repair any relationship, professional or not, whereas the lack of an apology can arouse anger (Chapman and Thomas 2006) and might increase malpractice lawsuits in the medical field (Denney 2005). Reflecting on my previous sessions with Margaret, I learned that we need to set aside our ego and put ourselves in the shoes of the other person in order to apologize correctly. The good news is that making an apology gets easier for everyone when it is practiced more often, and anyone can learn how to make one.
Chapman, Gary, and Jennifer Thomas. 2006. The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.
Denney, Mike. 2005. “The Ethics of Caring.” San Francisco Medicine 78:1.